OPERA: Sir John in Love; St John's Smith Square, London

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The Independent Culture
Critical petitions along the lines of this or that English opera being "scandalously neglected" run the risk of cliche, but the risk insists on being run here. Vaughan Williams completed Sir John in Love, the second of his four full-length operas, in 1928. Ever since its premiere the next year by the opera class of the Royal College of Music it seems to have been consigned to near-oblivion as a "student opera".

This ought, of course, to be a compliment: an opera written so gratefully that it's about six-times less demanding to perform than, say, anything by Mozart should have won at least a foothold in any self-respecting professional repertory. But this is to reckon without the politically correct tramlines on which the course of opera performance has been set in these islands for decades. Sir John in Love has its limitations (what opera after Mozart doesn't?), particularly if the cavortings of Shakespeare's gallery of royal-to-middle-Englanders aren't 100 per cent your cup of tea. But the perception of the work as replete with lumpy modal folksongs endlessly sung round maypoles is preposterously wide of the mark.

As befits its hero's legendary girth, the opera's idiom is of sound and reasonable weight, but it is also quick on its feet when it needs to be. The scene of Falstaff's attempted wooing of Mistresses Ford and Page and of his (and Ford's) subsequent comeuppance scampers along at a scintillating pace, and while the opera's final Falstaff-led ensemble is (deliberately) a more earthbound creation than Verdi's, you can sense its foot-stamping joy bounding effortlessly across the footlights to a modern audience. Offsetting all this energy is the composer's memorable flair for poetry and atmosphere, such as the solo oboe (beautifully played here) accompanying Anne Page's first soliloquy, the superimposed string chords (shades of the Pastoral Symphony) magically conjuring the setting of Herne the Hunter's Oak in Windsor Forest, or the resounding (if semi-ironic) horn calls accompanying the subsequent entry of the antler-headed Falstaff.

British Youth Opera's concert performance played happily to their own strengths and that of the music. Andrew Shore's massively accomplished Falstaff hogged the limelight no more than was fair enough, and while there were a few weak links in the cast, there were some strong ones, too. Stephen Holloway's baritone and Wills Morgan's tenor were perhaps rather too classy a pair of voices for Pistol and Bardolph, but were a delight anyway.

Geraldine McGreevy's Mrs Page offered a beautifully controlled and spontaneous mezzo, and Anne Page was fetchingly sung by Helen Lothian. In a gesture that was both audience friendly and genuinely useful, Timothy Dean had begun by introducing his penguin-suited and evening-dressed cast in terms of the character(s) they were singing rather than by their own names. He then conducted them and the Oxford University Chamber Choir and Orchestra at the kind of adrenaline-fuelled pace which, while it short-changed some of the opera's quieter moments, suited its generous-hearted whole.

Malcolm Hayes

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